Y si he de dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
And if I have to give witness to my era
it’s this: It was barbarous and primitive
-Ernesto Cardinal / John Samuel Tieman
I: The Madonna
My wife and I spent a couple of weeks this summer in Prague. We fell in love with the city. My wife attended a psychoanalytic conference, which left me with a few days on my own. Enough time for me to fall in love with the gothic Convent Of St. Agnes, which now houses the medieval collection of the Czech National Gallery. I spent two days there.
I learned many things. But of interest here is “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” It was one of the first “beautiful Madonnas,” sometimes called “the pretty Virgins.” In a few words, the painting is clearly medieval, but presents many features that prefigure the Renaissance. The Jesus and the Mary are anatomically proportional, for example. Obvious as it may be to those far wiser, it dawned on me, as I explored this painting at length, that it is possible to discuss a period that was, while clearly medieval, in essence pre-Renaissance.
It was a period of transition.
Which brings me to 2014. No one likes to think that they live in a dark age. (Many, perhaps most, medievalists dislike the very term “Dark Ages”). Yet I’m not sure what else to call the 20th Century. Verdun. Vietnam. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Auschwitz. Mustard gas. The Armenian Genocide. Stalinism. World War I, which was followed by another world war far worse. The Crusades pale by comparison. If the 20th Century wasn’t a dark age, then the term has no meaning.
With that in mind, our time is also a period of transition. Many scholars speak of the end of Modernism, that we are in a time of Post-Modernism. Jacques Derrida comes to mind, as does Michel Foucault. And many other equally brilliant scholars.
In my opinion, Post-Modernism isn’t so much a fixed ideology as it is a fluid critique of Modernism. It is indicative of a transition rather than any fixed point. Post-Modernism is essentially skeptical. It deconstructs. It offers an important vision of transition. But its very purpose is not foundational.
I’m not dismissing Post-Modernism, not by any means. It facilitates transition, and that is vital. Transitions are confusing. Post-Modernism gives an explanation, a kind of symbolic comfort to the confused. To risk a metaphor, it criticizes the old world, it explains the voyage, but it stipulates no port of call. It reacts. It doesn’t establish. Post-Modernism deconstructs Modernism, and, in doing so, provides a purely intellectual interlude into which no popular movement, nor any resultant magnum opus, has yet to enter. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply transitional. But it is not comparable to, say, the medieval religious movements that gave birth to both the Dominicans and the Franciscans, out of which grew such masterpieces as the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, and the poetry of Francis Of Assisi.
Which brings me back to “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” No one likes to think that they live in an unenlightened era. Nonetheless, it is possible to think of our years as comparable to that pre-Renaissance period. Perhaps we are approaching The Next Renaissance. I hope so. The alternative, that the 21st Century will be worse than the 20th, is too horrible to contemplate.
II: The Next Renaissance
Why should anyone have hope?
We have polluted the planet to the point of global warming. The United States elected a president, George W. Bush, who doesn’t believe in evolution. One poll found that 22% of adult Americans, and 20% of high school students, thought it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. The 85 richest people own 46% of the wealth – on the earth. In 2012, 49 million Americans lived with food insecurity, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children. In a recent poll, 51% of Republicans believed that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, who was born in Kenya. In that same poll, more than half of the Democrats believe that President Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. I got an internet ad that began, “Earn Your Ph. D. Online!” In education, complete standardization is a planned terminus.
This is a litany of ignorance and decadence that could go on ad infinitum.
So why should anyone have hope? Why should anyone feel that all this portends anything except darkness?
Perhaps because the very transition itself may be hopeful. One can hope that we are transitioning, because we have exhausted decadence and ignorance. Be that as it may, Modernism is ending. But thought is not. “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral” is indicative of a new learning that was, in essence, salvific.
Allow me another litany.
The Catholic Church is entering an era that is post-sacerdotal, one where the parish is run by the people. Our president is black, and our country increasingly brown. Major TV channels are in Spanish. My youngest niece just retired as a full-bird colonel in the Army. I think I was the only passenger who even noticed when, on one leg of our trip to Prague, all our pilots were female, and all our flight attendants were male. Wikipedia does what Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists only dreamed. Occupy Wall Street made it possible, for perhaps the first time since the McCarthy hearings, to openly critique capitalism. Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan, but healed in England, and now campaigns for the education of young women worldwide. Homosexuals can openly marry. In the United States, the death penalty is itself on the verge of extinction. It is possible to consider an end of the most corrosive effects of positivism, and the beginnings of a new humanism. Some of the finest works of art, that have ever been produced, are being crafted right now.
This too is a litany than could go on ad infinitum.
Of the two litanies I’ve just provided, we will choose the one we prefer. In the end, it’s not like I can really prove The Next Renaissance is approaching. My only point is that absolutely nothing dictates that this current transition must end badly.
But mine is pure speculation, reluctant optimism. So I say there is reason for hope. In any case, if the alternative is true, if the 21st Century grows worse than the 20th, then none of this matters. Because Sobibor’s fate will be envied.